Where's Wapiti?

hunting, wapiti, big game, Montana landscape

Where's Wapiti?

Bill Bilverstone
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A case of forebearance and beginner's luck.

If you fish or hunt, you’ve likely met That Guy. He’s recently moved to Montana and he wants to knowwhere to find the big bulls and lunker browns—right now. He doesn’t much care for studying maps, busting brush along river bottoms, glassing ridges, or hiking the timber looking for sign. What he wants is directions, specific directions: drainage and ridge, which rock to sit on, and which quadrant the bulls will be stampeding from. In my experience, his name is Mark.

A few years back, Mark, his wife, Jean, and their teenage daughter unloaded their 24-foot U-Haul across the street, two doors down. That was the second week of July and not two weeks later, in a strange twist on the welcome wagon, Mark and Jean brought me a plate of brownies. Jean, a small woman with a vulnerable smile, pleaded further unpacking and slipped away when Mark jerked the conversation around to “hunting the wily wapiti.” He’d likely spotted the gun rack in my truck and the doubled-up 2x8s nailed between the aspens in my back yard.

Mark seemed like a nice guy, mid-30s burly drifting towards mid-40s fat, a thick scar that ducked across his big, square chin. Shortly after, I’d been hauled over to commune with his three respectable whitetail heads; Mark began asking me where to find the elk. I told him that no one really knows, that everyone’s working on last year’s information, and when he wouldn’t accept that, I told him straight up.

“Listen, man, you need to respect the process. Pay your dues. Hike the drainages, glass the slopes. You could learn a lot between now and late October.”

Mark dodged eye contact and mumbled agreement, then showed up a week later with a dish of Jean’s lasagna. Thinking the lasagna was a peace offering, I invited him inside—which was a mistake. Pretty quick he was leaning across my chrome-and-Formica kitchen table, pressing me for information.

Although I remained firm and reiterated that he needed to pay his dues, my eventual capitulation was likely foreshadowed during the subsequent five seconds. Rather than stress my position by returning the lasagna, I snatched it off the table and stuffed it in the refrigerator so he couldn’t take it back.

Mark accepted that second rebuke and remained friendly, until the Ordeal of the Pipes, which jumped into high gear one rainy Saturday morning when several helpings of Drano and a good deal of enthusiastic pumping with an industrial-size plunger failed to unclog my blocked kitchen drain.

I fired up my ‘72 F100 and set out to rent a snake: a clog-busting auger affixed to a flexible steel cable. Mark saw me rolling down the street, throttled down his John Deerelawn mower and waved me over. When I told him about the blocked drain, Mark reached through the window and gave my shoulder a friendly punch.

“Good buddy,” he said, “you’re in luck. I own a snake.”

Not only did Mark have a snake in his metal utility shed, but he insisted on loading the heavy, awkward, and thoroughly grimy contraption onto my truck and wouldn’t allow me to take a turn cranking the auger through what turned out to be a difficult and time-consuming clog.

I’m not sure when Mark realized the balance of power was shifting, but he certainly had it figured out by the time we returned the snake to the shed. He stood there absolutely beaming while I shook his hand and offered to buy him lunch, dinner, a cup of coffee, or a beer. He politely declined my offers, but his smug incandescence was causing me a good deal of discomfort. I was beginning to feel like a cranky old elk miser unwilling to share with the man who’d saved me the expense of renting a snake, and gotten himself drain-slime filthy unclogging the mess.

Except for another dish of lasagna that appeared on my porch a few days before hunting season, that’s the way matters remained until the last week of October. My buddy Tim and I were cruising down Gallatin Canyon after an unsuccessful hunt, when Tim pointed out a bull elk in the bed of the green pickup 100 yards ahead. Thirty seconds later the green pickup swerved into the Greek Creek turnoff and—spinning a rooster tail of gravel—cranked a U-turn and blasted past us back up the canyon.

“What was that about?” Tim asked rhetorically.

Thinking hard, it took me a while to answer. “That,” I finally said, “is the solution to the problem with my lasagna-pushing neighbor.”

“How so?”

“I’m going to tell him I saw a truck hauling an elk pull out of Greek Creek.”

“You’re not!” Tim said, aghast but laughing.

That very evening I walked the lasagna dish back, thanked Jean, and when Mark asked (as I knew he would) if I got my elk, I answered, “No, but I saw a pickup hauling one pull out of Greek Creek as we drove down the canyon.”

That was Sunday. Monday evening Mark was waiting in the cooling dusk when I got home from work.

“Hey,” I said climbing out of the F100 as he hauled his bulk off my front steps.

“What’s up?”

“I took the day off.”

“Yeah?”

“I want to show you something.”

“Okay.”

The streetlights came humming on as we walked to his house. Mark’s blue Silverado and Jean’s silver Accord were parked in front of the garage, so I had a pretty good idea what I was going to see.

Mark threw open the rattling overhead door and snapped on the light. A field-dressed spike hung from a truss.

“It was incredible,” he said, turning to me, his face shining like a boy reliving his first kiss. “I was glassing the countryside when a small herd of cows trotted across the road, followed by a spike. I grabbed my .30-06 off the front seat, lay over the hood, andheart-shot the spike. And get this—he dropped on a little hump of ground so I was able to drag him onto the bed with the help of a come-along. I was home for lunch.”

“Wow. That’s great, Mark.”

“Thanks for the tip,” he said, seizing my hand.

“Next year,” I said, “you’re on your own. In the meantime, though, let’s talk about lasagna.”

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